When we contemplate the wonderful acrylic paintings from the Western Desert region of Central Australia, we immediately think of the small Aboriginal community of Papunya, the birthplace of the contemporary Indigenous art movement. We imagine a time, some 40 years ago, when the senior Aboriginal men of the region unreservedly depicted their sacred ancestral stories in vivid, culturally rich iconography on any available flat surface. The artists of this period were Aboriginal men, cultural lawmakers and ceremonial leaders within the community. They depicted their sacred Tjukurpa (Dreamings), retelling the stories of the ancestors.
The history of the Aboriginal art movement has changed remarkably within this short period. There are many factors that have contributed to the meteoric rise of this exciting industry: the land rights and outstation movement whereby Aboriginal people began to move back to their homelands from missions and reserves and hence paint their country; the creation of the Aboriginal Art Board in 1973, which assisted in establishing and promoting Indigenous art to a wider commercial art audience; and the development of government-funded Aboriginal Art Centres whose sole purpose was to support encourage and facilitate the development of Aboriginal art in remote regions. These combined mechanisms ensured that Australian Indigenous art would no longer sit within the confines of the ethnographic museums, but would be launched and catapulted into the fine arts arena.
Today, Aboriginal women also play a major role as producers of Western Desert paintings, often following in the footsteps of their fathers, brothers and husbands.
Walangkura (Jackson) Napanangka is a Pintupi woman originally from the Tjukurla region in Central Australia. Born around 1940, Napanangka spent the early part of her life travelling through her families’ country, between Punkilpirri near Docker River and Walukirritji rock hole on the south-west side of Lake MacDonald. In the 1960s, many Pintupi people were leaving their homelands due to an extensive drought in the region. Walangkura travelled with her family into the government settlement of Haasts Bluff and was exposed for the first time to western culture. She later moved with her husband, Uta Uta Tjangala, to the Aboriginal community of Papunya, roughly 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs. It was here in this small Indigenous community that the germination of the Western Desert acrylic painting movement began. Tjangala was one of a small handful of Pintupi, Luritja, Warlpiri and Anmatyerre ceremonial leaders who initiated, with Geoffrey Bardon, this new and innovative art movement. From July 1971 to August 1972, some 620 paintings were produced for the market and later sold at the Stuart Art Centre in Alice Springs.
Napanangka was exposed to and surrounded by this proliferation of art; however, she did not begin painting until 1997 and, even then, not regularly until 2002.
The National Gallery of Australia was fortunate to acquire a beautiful work, Untitled 2009, by Napanangka in 2010. This significant painting is a very considered work, and relates to an important Aboriginal site called Yanawarri, near Tjukurla, north-west of Docker River in the Gibson Desert region in Western Australia.
Napanangka’s style is strongly influenced by her late husband; both artists depict the physical and spiritual Central Australian landscape in bold and powerful ways. Unlike Tjangala’s work, however, there is more freedom, flow and rhythm to Walangkura’s work. It is both forthright and feminine.
The choice of colours and the nature of the composition are confident, intricate and intense and reference the power and heat of the desert. It is imposing and intimidating to the viewer.
It is a topographical map of the artist’s country, although painted according to a spiritual scale rather than a geographic scale: significant cultural sites are large and dominate the canvas, while discrete locations and tracks are small and disappear into the work. Australia is fortunate to have this work in the national collection. It was acquired in acknowledgment of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations with generous support from The Myer Foundation.
Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010
in artonview, issue 62, winter 2010